AFC West: Donald Butler

In this series we take a look at 12 players for the San Diego Chargers who are 25 or younger and who could be considered foundational or impact players.

Player: ILB Donald Butler
Age: 25

Butler
The skinny: A third-round selection by the Chargers in the 2010 draft, Butler signed a seven-year, $51.8 million deal as the team's top priority this offseason. San Diego's defensive co-captain finished second on the team with 84 tackles, four pass breakups, an interception and half a sack during the regular season. Butler missed time for a second straight season, sitting out four games with a groin injury.

Reason for optimism: At 6-1 and 242 pounds, Butler is fast (4.62-second, 40-yard time at his pro day) and strong (35 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds). The University of Washington product also has a nose for the football and has the potential to develop into the long-term leader for defensive coordinator John Pagano's unit. But Butler has to perform in 2014 and beyond as he did in the postseason, when he led the Chargers in tackles with 18 and also forced a fumble.

Reason for concern: Can Butler finally stay healthy and develop into a playmaker on defense? After he signed the long-term deal, Butler said as much, stating that improving his durability was a priority during the offseason. Butler missed 24 of a possible 64 games in his four-year career with the Chargers, including four games each in the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of a similar groin injury. Butler has not always played at a high level week in, week out. He needs to perform as he did during the 2013 playoffs on a more consistent basis.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC West

March, 10, 2014
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The AFC West produced three playoff teams and the eventual AFC title winner in the Denver Broncos, so it should come as no surprise that many top free agents come from the division. Oakland Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams break down the top 15:

1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.

2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.

3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.

4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.

Moreno
5. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back: Has had multiple knee surgeries, including one on a torn ACL in 2011, but he runs with passion, is solid in pass protection and a productive receiver.

6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.

7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.

8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.

9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.

10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.

McCluster
McCluster
11. Dexter McCluster, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner: Hasn’t had a huge impact on the offense in Kansas City, but he will be only 26 in August.

12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.

13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.

14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.

15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

With just under $6 million in projected salary-cap space, the San Diego Chargers are not expected to make a big splash at the start of free agency. But the Chargers could still add a few impact players at a reasonable price if the organization is patient and does its homework.

That said, we take a close look at San Diego's approach heading into free agency.

Key free agents: Chad Rinehart, Darrell Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Reggie Walker, Charlie Whitehurst.

Where they stand: San Diego already took care of the team's top offseason priority, with middle linebacker Donald Butler inked to a multiyear deal before the onset of free agency. The Chargers need help at cornerback, nose tackle, edge rusher, interior offensive line and in the return game. San Diego could look to sign a couple of their own free agents that produced in 2013, including Rinehart, Stuckey, Marshall and Walker. All four players had an impact in the team's surprising postseason run and could return at a reasonable price. The Chargers also need to find a capable backup for every-down running back Ryan Mathews, with veteran Ronnie Brown hitting the market.

What to expect: With a limited amount of cap space, expect the Chargers to be active in the secondary free-agent market, targeting veteran players with a specific skill set who can make an impact. The Chargers benefited from signing two such players to two-year deals last year in tackle King Dunlap and running back Danny Woodhead. San Diego also could look for front-line players who don't receive the type of lucrative offers they expect and want to re-enter the market after a one-year, prove-it deal.
A key part of the San Diego Chargers' offseason blueprint already has been accomplished, with general manager Tom Telesco reaching a multiyear deal with inside linebacker Donald Butler, keeping the University of Washington product the focal point of the team’s defense for the foreseeable future.

However, after winning a playoff game last season, the Chargers have to improve the speed, depth and overall talent on both sides of the ball in order to reach the playoffs for a second straight season under head coach Mike McCoy.

In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, our NFL insiders detail the pieces of the puzzle the Chargers need to pull together in order to accomplish that goal, including potential moves San Diego could make through the draft and free agency, along with developing the talent currently on the roster.

To that end, the Chargers need to see steady growth from up-and-coming talent on the roster, including edge rushers Larry English and Melvin Ingram, along with speedy tight end Ladarius Green and hard-hitting safety Jahleel Addae.
Middle linebacker Donald Butler was pleased to sign a new multiyear deal with the San Diego Chargers on Friday before heading out for a previously scheduled vacation to Maui.

Butler considered waiting it out and testing his value out on the open market once free agency began on March 11, but ultimately San Diego is where he wanted to be.

[+] EnlargeGiovani Bernard
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanDonald Butler proved key for the Chargers in their playoff win in Cincinnati.
“It’s always been one of my goals when I came in [to stay with the team that drafted me],” Butler said. “I know it’s not as common anymore because of free agency. But I figured whatever team did invest in me to begin with, I wanted to do the same and try to stay with them for the remainder of my career.

“Obviously, that thought crosses your mind [to test free agency]. But again, I wanted to be here in San Diego. And if we could get close enough to where I thought my value was at, I would ink it in a heartbeat.”

For Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, retaining Butler remained one of the team’s top priorities heading into the free-agency period.

“He’s an integral part of our future,” Telesco said. “He’s a leader for us on the field and in the locker room. And as a player he’s very instinctive. He’s aggressive, and he has a nose for the football.”

Butler understands the Chargers have invested in him as one of the foundational players on defense. And he wants to hold up his end of the bargain, which means playing a full, 16-game season. The University of Washington product has missed 24 of a possible 64 games in his four-year career with the Chargers, including four games each in the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of a similar groin injury.

“My biggest thing is I need to be on the field for all 16 games,” Butler said. “Obviously, the last two years, both years, I missed four games because of the same injury. To me, that’s unacceptable.

“You get paid to play all 16 games, and so my biggest thing is now I fully understand what I have to do this offseason to make sure that, come the regular season, I’m ready to go -- and that’s all 16 games, along with the playoff run we intend to make.”

Butler went on to say he’s looking forward to beginning San Diego’s offseason program April 22.

Another reason Butler chose to remain in San Diego is he believes the Chargers are building a team that can win on a consistent basis and challenge for a Super Bowl.

“We've got a couple other positions that the organization needs to take care of, and then obviously free agency starts, and we’ll see what we can do with that,” Butler said. “I think we have a good nucleus of young guys here that the organization wants to keep together, and really continue to build for the future. It’s exciting.”

Butler says he feels no additional pressure to perform with the new deal.

“I plan to continue doing what I've been doing, which is helping this team win ball games,” Butler said. “And that’s me being a captain and a leader, helping out Manti [Te’o] and doing whatever I can. If anything, there’s less pressure. I felt like last year I played with more pressure than now. Now, you go out there and play and prove that you’re deserving.

“It’s a burden off of my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about it because I know that I’ll be a Charger for years to come, and I couldn't be more happy.”
One priority in free agency for the San Diego Chargers is re-signing middle linebacker Donald Butler. The two sides broke off discussions on a long-term deal during the 2013 season. But with the Chargers looking to get something done before the start of free agency on March 11, preliminary discussions are in the works, with the potential of talks picking up at the NFL scouting combine this week in Indianapolis.

Butler
A third-round draft selection in the 2010 draft, Butler is considered a core player for the Chargers. He missed four games in 2013 but finished second on the team in tackles with 84 during the regular season. And in the playoffs, Butler elevated his game for the Chargers, a good sign for an organization that wants to make the University of Washington product a piece of the team's foundation.

With Monday being the first day teams can begin using franchise-tag designations, the Chargers could consider placing an exclusive franchise-tag designation on Butler, although they would likely wait until closer to the March 3 deadline for using the tag designations.

The projected salary for franchised linebackers is expected to be around $10 million, which is more than San Diego would like to pay Butler in terms of an annual salary. Using the franchise-tag tender designation would also hamper the Chargers in securing other free agents because they are tight against the cap.

However, if negotiations are at an impasse, the Chargers could use the exclusive franchise tag to make sure Butler cannot negotiate with other teams while the two sides continue to work on a multiyear deal.
SAN DIEGO -- With the NFL scouting combine a week away there’s a buzz at Chargers Park.

The San Diego Chargers' personnel department and coaching staff are gathered at the facility making final preparations for the annual look at some of the best athletes available for the draft in Indianapolis.

During that hectic process, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco carved out some time for this reporter to talk about the continued development of his team after last year’s playoff run.

The Chargers have seven picks in this year’s draft, and 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents on March 11. San Diego’s top unrestricted free agent is middle linebacker and defensive co-captain Donald Butler. The sides would like to get something done before the free agency period begins in March, and have resumed contract discussions.

[+] EnlargeChargers
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsFinding a way to keep inside linebacker Donald Butler is a priority for the Chargers.
San Diego could use the franchise tag designation on Butler to keep the University of Washington product from hitting free agency, but the projected franchise tag number for middle linebacker is north of $10 million. And with the Chargers tight against the salary cap heading into free agency, they likely want to get something done soon.

Teams can begin applying the franchise tag on Monday. Along with Butler, San Diego’s list of pending unrestricted free agents includes: receivers Seyi Ajirotutu, Danario Alexander and Lavelle Hawkins, running back Ronnie Brown, cornerback Richard Marshall, offensive linemen Rich Ohrnberger and Chad Rinehart, strong safety Darrell Stuckey, defensive lineman Cam Thomas, and linebacker Reggie Walker.

San Diego finished at about $120 million in salary-cap space in 2013, allowing the team to carry over about $2.3 million into the 2014 season. With a projected cap of $126.3 million, San Diego's adjusted salary cap for 2014 -- if the team carries over cap dollars -- will be between $128-$129 million, leaving little space to sign its own free agents, or free agents from other teams.

However, the Chargers can create cap space by releasing veterans like guard Jeromey Clary ($4.55 million in non-guaranteed base salary), receiver Eddie Royal ($4.5 million) and fullback Le'Ron McClain ($2.5 million), or restructuring deals for quarterback Philip Rivers or safety Eric Weddle.

Telesco did not talk specifically about the plans for the Chargers in free agency, but said it remains one of the ways his team can secure more talent to continue the roster-building process.

“It’s definitely a piece of the puzzle,” Telesco said. “I don’t think it’s ever the only answer, but it’s definitely a piece of the puzzle when you’re trying to put a team together. You’re looking for guys that fit what you run, either on offense or defense, and that fit under your salary-cap structure. And if you can hit those -- find the right player at the right place for where you are with your cap -- it’s a good move. It’s just hard to do sometimes. Sometimes you can get one or the other, but you can’t get both.

“Every year is completely different, based on how much space you have. So, really every year in free agency is really unique, but a lot of guys won’t get to free agency. They’re either re-signed by their own team, or they get tagged. So you just have to be careful. You do a lot of homework on it, and try to line up the ability to help you win and fit what you do, line it up with salary structure and see if it works for you.”

At the heart of the offseason process for the Chargers is adding impact players and keeping the team’s core group together.

Telesco said one of the attractions of the job in San Diego was that the team already had foundational pieces in place on both sides of the ball, including Rivers, running back Ryan Mathews, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and Clary on offense, and defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, Weddle, and Butler on defense.

“Ideally, the guys that you draft and developed for two, three or four years, you’d like to keep your core together,” Telesco said. “You’ve invested in them, and you kind of already know what you have. With the college draft, there’s a bigger pool of players to work through. And you can decide who fits you and who doesn’t. In free agency, you can have a position of need, and there’s only three or four guys available. And maybe none of them fit. In college with the draft, there’s a lot more.”
SAN DIEGO -- In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Mike Sando takes a look at the top 25 free agents set to hit the market in 2014.

While that list does not include a player from San Diego's current roster, I thought we'd take this opportunity to look at the Chargers salary cap situation heading into Year 2 of the general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy regime.

Telesco is scheduled to talk with reporters at the team's facility on Wednesday.

McCoy offered few details during his end-of-the-season interview session when asked what his team's approach will be in free agency, including the team's top unrestricted free agent, middle linebacker Donald Butler.

The Chargers have 12 players set to become unrestricted free agents once the free agency period begins in March.

“We'll address all those things down the road,” McCoy said. “We're going to sit down, like I talked about, as an organization and as a staff, Tom (Telesco) and the personnel department, we'll evaluate our football team and we'll have tough decisions like we do every offseason like all 32 teams.

“There's a lot of things that come into the equation and we'll do what we think is best for the football team moving forward.”

San Diego finished at about $120 million in salary cap space in 2013, allowing the team to carry over about $2.3 million into the 2014 season. With a projected league-wide salary cap of $126.3 million, San Diego's adjusted salary cap for 2014 if the team carries over cap dollars will be between $128-$129 million, giving them little space to sign its own free agents, let alone free agents from other teams.

However, the Chargers could save cap space with a couple different moves. The second year of cornerback Derek Cox's four-year, $20 million salary is guaranteed for injury only, according to salary cap specialist Brian McIntyre. If Cox is on San Diego's roster on the third day of the new league year once it begins in March, his $4.25 million salary is guaranteed.

But releasing Cox in February after the Super Bowl, the proration of Cox's $3.9 million signing bonus would accelerate into the 2014 salary cap for the Chargers. So San Diego would save $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash by releasing Cox.

The Chargers could save another $11.55 million in salary-cap space and cash by releasing players getting long in the tooth like guard Jeromey Clary ($4.55 in non-guaranteed base salary), receiver Eddie Royal ($4.5 million) and fullback Le'Ron McClain ($2.5 million).

Also, according to McIntyre, edge rusher Dwight Freeney is due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 15. Freeney is set to make $3.5 million in non-guaranteed salary in 2014. Freeney says he plan on returning from a torn quad that ended his 2013 season, and will play next year.

Chargers 2013 salary cap: $120 million
Chargers projected 2014 salary cap: $128-$129 million
Unrestricted free agents: WR Seyi Ajirotutu , WR Danario Alexander, RB Ronnie Brown, LB Donald Butler, LB Larry English, WR Lavelle Hawkins, CB Richard Marshall, OL Rich Ohrnberger, OL Chad Rinehart, SS Darrell Stuckey, DL Cam Thomas, LB Reggie Walker.
A weekly examination of the Chargers' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 23 | Last Week: 15 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The San Diego Chargers dropped two more spots to No. 17 in this week's Power Rankings. At 4-5, the Chargers have their first two-game losing streak this season and now face two tough games on the road, including a cross-country trek Sunday at Miami and at AFC West division rival Kansas City the following week.

Despite the disappointing loss to Denver over the weekend, the Chargers have some positives to build on this week. San Diego's defense held Denver's high-scoring offense scoreless for most of the second half, while Philip Rivers led the offense on two touchdown drives that allowed the Chargers to close within a score. And middle linebacker Donald Butler provided a spark defensively in his first game back from a groin injury.

The Chargers have defeated Miami the past two times the teams have met and are 2-1 in the Eastern time zone this season (wins over Philadelphia and Jacksonville, a loss to Washington). However, the last time San Diego played at Miami, the Chargers suffered a 17-10 loss to the Dolphins in 2008.
SAN DIEGO -- An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers' 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
John Leyba/The Denver PostThe Chargers gave up a 74-yard touchdown to Julius Thomas early in the game.
Tackling still an issue: For a second straight week, San Diego’s defense struggled to stop explosive plays. Denver finished with five passing plays of 18 or more yards, including two for touchdowns. A week earlier, Washington’s offense finished with eight plays of 20 or more yards against San Diego’s defense. The Chargers are struggling to take the proper angle to the ball, and not enough defenders are rallying to the ball. “It’s just tackling,” San Diego middle linebacker Donald Butler said. “You’ve got to tackle -- plain and simple.”

That Peyton Manning guy is pretty good: Manning, the top-rated passer in the league, did not disappoint, finishing 25-of-36 for 330 yards and four touchdown passes. The Chargers managed to get some pressure on Manning, sacking him twice, including a strip sack by Tourek Williams that was recovered by Butler. Manning also suffered a right ankle injury on a hit by Corey Liuget. But Manning still finished with a 135.2 passer rating, and is 3-0 against the Chargers since his arrival in Denver.

On the road again: Losers of two straight for the first time this season, the Chargers hit the road for a two-game stretch that begins in Miami on Sunday, and has the Chargers traveling to Kansas City to face the team’s AFC West rivals in two weeks. San Diego is 2-3 on the road this season. After back-to-back road games, the Chargers finish with four of their last five games at home. Even with the two straight losses, at 4-5 the Chargers are a game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the final AFC wild-card spot.

Fake punt works: San Diego’s fake punt attempt in the opening quarter worked, but it didn’t create game-changing momentum for the Chargers. At fourth-and-1 from San Diego’s 29-yard line, the Chargers lined up to punt. However, up back Eric Weddle took the snap and plunged down the middle of the line for 2 yards to pick up the first down. Weddle’s effort was wasted when the Chargers had to punt four plays later after failing to pick up a first down. “I had a nice little collision there, but I feel I can get 1 yard over anyone,” Weddle said. “If I can’t, I shouldn’t be in there.”
SAN DIEGO -- Observed in the locker room after the San Diego Chargers' 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Allen
We can play with them: Several players said one takeaway from Sunday’s game is that the Chargers proved they can play with one of the best teams in the NFL. San Diego’s defense held the league’s top-scoring offense scoreless for the final 26 minutes of the contest. And down 28-6 in the second half, Philip Rivers led the Chargers on two second-half touchdown drives to close the deficit to within a score. “We can play with those guys any day of the week,” Chargers receiver Keenan Allen said. “It just came down to not executing in the first half. But we came out, corrected our stuff and made the game a game.”

O-line shuffled: For the second time in three games, the Chargers were down to their final active offensive lineman due to injury. Coach Mike McCoy chose to activate just seven offensive linemen for Sunday’s game, even though two games ago against Jacksonville the Chargers had to use all eight active offensive linemen because of injuries suffered during the game. Against the Broncos, left tackle King Dunlap suffered his third concussion of the season and center Nick Hardwick suffered a neck stinger. Rich Ohrnberger replaced Hardwick at center, and D.J. Fluker moved from right tackle to fill in for Dunlap at left tackle. Jeromey Clary bumped from right guard to right tackle, and Chad Rinehart entered the game to play right guard. If another San Diego offensive lineman had suffered an injury, tight end John Phillips likely would have been the next man up. “If you could have told me that two of them were going to go down, I would have done something different,” McCoy said. “But I think for the football team, the roster that we had, the injuries that we had and the guys who were not playing, I think it was the best thing for us to do.”

Butler’s back: After missing three games with a groin injury, inside linebacker Donald Butler made an impact in his first game back. He finished with seven tackles, a fumble recovery and nearly an interception, providing some stability and playmaking ability from the middle of San Diego’s defense. Butler said he made it through the game without any issues. “I feel great,” Butler said. “After missing three weeks, it felt really good to get back out there with the guys.”
SAN DIEGO – Quarterback Philip Rivers still appeared a bit annoyed to have to answer questions about the San Diego Chargers' struggles scoring from the goal line this season.

"You just got to score," he said. "There's not going to be any magic that we dream up here in the next, few days. We've just got to score, find a way to score. It's really nothing more than that."

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
John McDonnell/The Washington PostPhillip Rivers missed Keenan Allen on third down -- forcing the Chargers to settle for a field goal.
The Chargers failed to get into the end zone from a yard out on three straight downs for the winning score against the Washington Redskins last week, a contest the team lost in overtime, 30-24.

For the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers are a league-worst 2-of-11 from a yard out.

San Diego's goal-line struggles remained a hot-button topic on local sports radio shows, the internet and even nationally, with Michael Wilbon of ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" saying San Diego's coaching staff was guilty of the worst play calling in the history of the NFL in the team's final three plays at the 1-yard line.

Rivers is ready to put the issue to rest.

"Those are all things for talk shows, to be honest with you," Rivers said. "If I had the answer, we'd score. So we're going to keep playing each week. That's why you play the game, is to try and score the next time. It's not just, ‘Oh, we just figured out the play. We'll get it there next week.' Scoring, and getting first downs and throwing completions, there isn't really an answer to it. If there were, we could just do interviews, and we could decide the outcome of the game without going out there."

The team's leading rusher, Ryan Mathews has just one rushing touchdown this season. Asked if he'd like to see the ball more near the goal line, Mathews was diplomatic.

"Any of us can get in -- me, Danny [Woodhead], Ronnie [Brown] or Le'Ron [McClain] -- we have a lot of weapons on offense," he said. "So it's probably hard for the coaches to see which one they want to go to.

"We've just got to execute. It doesn't matter what play is called. We've just got to execute and score."

Reminded that he scored 39 touchdowns in college at Fresno State, Mathews had this to say:

"This ain't college," he said. "This is the pros, man."

Injury update: Linebacker Donald Butler said he felt good being out on the field for practice on Wednesday after missing the last three games with a groin injury.

Butler also missed a game against Tennessee earlier this season because of the groin issue. He said part of the reason the training staff has taken a cautious approach is to make sure he doesn't have a problem with the injury for the remainder of the season.

"That was the whole point in me taking as long as I have, to make sure when I came back [I was fully healthy]," Butler said. "And nothing has been decided yet. But just the fact that I was able to go out there and run full speed, kind of cut [is good], and I'll see how I feel tomorrow."

Butler was listed as a limited participant on San Diego's injury report.

Along with Butler, defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe) and offensive lineman Chad Rinehart (toe) were limited participants. Linebacker Tourek Williams (thumb) was a full participant.

Offensive lineman Mike Remmers (ankle) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe) did not practice.
SAN DIEGO -- For the first time in a month, San Diego Chargers middle linebacker Donald Butler was in full pads and working with the first group in individual drills during the early portion of practice on Wednesday.

Butler
Butler has missed the past three games with a nagging groin issue, but appears to have a chance to get back on the field when the Denver Broncos travel to San Diego.

Slot receiver Eddie Royal (toe) again was not out on the field during the early portion of practice. Royal hasn’t practiced leading up to San Diego’s past two games, but still played.

Offensive lineman Chad Rinehart (toe) was out at practice today. Rinehart has missed the past five games with a toe injury. During the early portion of practice he worked a right guard with the second unit. Johnnie Troutman continued to work with the first unit at left guard. Offensive lineman Mike Remmers worked with trainers on the side. Remmers missed last week’s Washington game with an ankle injury.
 
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

 
SAN DIEGO – San Diego Chargers middle linebacker Donald Butler missed practice for the second day in a row, bringing his availability for Sunday’s game at Washington into question.

Butler
Although Butler did not practice with his teammates on Thursday, he did work with a trainer on agility drills on a side field. Butler missed the last two games due to a groin issue.

Along with Butler, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) and offensive lineman Michael Remmers (ankle) also did not practice. Royal did not practice for the entire week heading into the Jacksonville game two weeks ago but still played.

Offensive lineman Chad Rinehart (toe) was a limited participant for a second straight day. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hamstring) and Eric Weddle (toe) were full participants again on Thursday.

Reserve linebackers Andrew Gachkar and Reggie Walker have filled the void in Butler’s absence. Gachker played 42 snaps in San Diego’s win over Jacksonville; Walker subbed in on passing situations, playing 19 snaps. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano said the duo has been solid playing specific roles while Butler is out.

“They’re doing great,” Pagano said. “They’re like sponges. They soak everything up, and then we take the sponge and we squeeze everything we can get out of them. And they just want to give it to you all. They’re doing a great job of truly understanding it.”

Walker said he’s focused on improving each week.

“I think I’ve done pretty good,” Walker said. “There’s always a couple things I wish I could have done better. But for the most part I’ve done OK. I’m just trying to get better each and every week, and get a better understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

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